The Park: Great River Bluffs State Park follows a series of impressive bluffs along the Mississippi River just south of Winona. For those of you who think Minnesota is as flat as a pancake (and I'm not saying there aren't places in the state that are), Great River Bluffs will be a surprise. King's and Queen's Bluff are like half hills, gradually rising from the valley only to end in a 500 ft cliff along the river. The highlights of the park are the spectacular views, overlooking both the Mississippi River to the east as well as the blufflands to the west. While the hiking club trail will bring you to the top of King's Bluff and give you great views of Queen's Bluff (unfortunately you can't hike on Queen's Bluff since it's a protected natural area), make sure you head over to the campground where a series of short walks will bring to three of the best overlooks in the park.
The Hike: The 2.5 mile hiking trail begins at the King's Bluff trailhead. Beginning in a valley, the trail slowly rises through oak and birch forests, providing a number of vistas along the way. As you reach the top of the bluff, the forest thins and you'll find yourself hiking through shrubby oaks and prairie grasses. This change in environment is all the warning you get before you suddenly hit the edge of the bluff. King's bluff is open, so you'll be rewarded with breathtaking views of Queen's Bluff, the Mississippi, and the Blufflands on the Wisconsin side of the river to one side and the rolling Minnesota Blufflands on the other. Take a minute to appreciate to cool breeze of the summit. When heading back, you can go straight back to the trailhead, or explore some of the other trails in the area that bring you through picturesque sumac groves, pine forests, and open fields.
The Drive: When visiting Great River Bluffs State Park, it's worth it to take the scenic route. From the Twin Cities, take U.S. Hwy 61 down to the park along the river. It'll take you through some of the oldest and most iconic town in the state including Red Wing, the home of Red Wing Boots, Lake City, the birthplace of waterskiing, and Winona, where you'll get your first view of the giant bluffs. However, as beautiful as the Minnesota side is, on your way back, take the Great River Road National Scenic Byway on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi. Recently named one of the best road trips in America, the road winds through quaint Wisconsin river towns, beneath towering bluffs, and beside one of the most interesting stretches of the Mississippi river along its entire length. Along with the North Shore Scenic Byway on Lake Superior, this is one of the most beautiful drives in the state.
Miles Driven: 3317
Miles Hiked: 68.3
Arbitrary Rating: 4/5